The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a guided-missile cruiser that became a potent target of Ukrainian defiance in the opening days of the war, sank on Thursday after it was heavily damaged in the latest setback for Moscow’s invasion.
Ukrainian officials said their forces hit the vessel with missiles, while Russia acknowledged a fire aboard the Moskva but no attack. US and other Western officials could not confirm what caused the blaze.
The loss of the warship named for the Russian capital is a devastating symbolic defeat for Moscow as its troops regroup for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine after retreating from much of the north, including the capital.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the ship sank in a storm while being towed to a port. Russia earlier said the flames on the ship, which would typically have 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate. It later said the blaze had been contained and that the ship would be towed to port with its missile launchers intact.
The ship can carry 16 long-range cruise missiles, and its removal from combat reduces Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. It’s also a blow to Russian prestige in a war already widely seen as a historic blunder. Now entering its eighth week, Russia’s invasion has stalled because of resistance from Ukrainian fighters bolstered by weapons and other aid sent by Western nations.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region, across the Black Sea to the northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage”.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, called it an event of “colossal significance”.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the blaze. It said the “main missile weapons” were not damaged. In addition to the cruise missiles, the warship also had air-defense missiles and other guns.
The US was not able to confirm Ukraine’s claims of striking the warship, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday. Still, he called it “a big blow to Russia”.
“They’ve had to kind of choose between two stories: One story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they came under attack, and neither is a particular the good outcome for them,” Sullivan told the Economic Club of Washington.
During the first days of the war, The Moskva was reportedly the warship that called on Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea to surrender in a standoff. In a widely circulated recording, the soldier responds: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”.
The news of the flagship’s damage overshadowed Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol, where they have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the heaviest fighting of the war — at a horrific cost to civilians.
Mariupol’s capture is critical for Russia because it would allow its forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland and the target of the coming offensive.
Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukraine in the Donbas since 2014, the same year Russia seized Crimea. Russia has recognised the independence of the rebel regions in the Donbas.
The loss of the Moskva could delay any new, wide-ranging offensive.